Killarney's hurling showpiece

Extraordinary circumstances combined in 1937, and the All-Ireland Hurling Final was moved to Killarney. Ahead of a Kerry Archaeological and Historical Society talk in Killarney Library, Tadhg Evans spoke to expert, Richard McElligott

It's an historical snippet so surprising that, when first observed, it enters the mind and whips the thoughts into frothing disbelief.

The mere sight of a sliotar, of all things, darting through the sky over Fitzgerald Stadium would be a happening rare enough to put bumps in the pulse of the coolest GAA man. One can only imagine, then, the surprise that accompanied the billing of an All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final, the sport's biggest game, for the darling of Lewis Road.

"Given everything that happened during 1937, Killarney actually became the logical choice to host that year's final," Kilflynn's Dr Richard McElligott, a UCD Lecturer in Modern Irish History, explains to The Kerryman exactly 80 years on from the brightest sporting spectacle to have crossed into Kerry.

"Just weeks after the iconic Dick Fitzgerald's passing in September 1930, a Dr Crokes meeting prompted efforts to build a new stadium in tribute to Kerry GAA's first superstar. Some six years of work would culminate in the opening of Fitzgerald Stadium in 1936, the country's second largest venue and a project typical of a time of expansion for the association. Thousands had started going to matches all over the country by then, and even Croke Park was struggling to meet the public's appetite -- and this would lead to a sooner-than-expected day in the sun for Killarney's big new venue.

"In February 1936, redevelopment began on the Cusack Stand and Hill 16, and the finished product was meant to come on stream in August 1937, just in time for the All-Ireland finals. But a massive strike broke out between Dublin's builders and the Irish Free State Federation of Building Contractors, and demands for a weekly pay rise of 11 shillings curbed all construction in the city. With the hurling final drawing closer, it became apparent that Croke Park wouldn't be ready for the hurling All-Ireland, so the GAA looked elsewhere - and Killarney's new masterpiece came into view."

With redevelopments also at a sensitive point in the home of hurling, Thurles' Semple Stadium, a coupling of odd circumstances and Killarney's impressive facilities made the Kerry town the only candidate with the muscle to support the biggest match of the year. Ahead of the final, Central Council gave Killarney its unanimous backing, and hurling's premier occasion was destined for temporary shelter deep within football's leafiest forest.

"It might seem strange today that it was billed for Kerry and a ground that is now so heavily associated with football, but Fitzgerald Stadium had only narrowly missed out on hosting the Munster hurling final in 1937, and Dr Eamonn O'Sullivan had never intended for the stadium to be limited to just one code," says Dr McElligott.

"Even though there was a weaker hurling tradition in Kerry than in other counties, the locals were delighted at the news from GAA headquarters. Just one year previously, Killarney was successful in hosting an Irish Eucharistic Congress, and its reputation for tourism was beginning to blossom. The Kerryman summed up the county's mood at the time of the GAA's decision, lauding it as recognition of both a great town and a great stadium. While hurling wasn't Kerry's game, the county very much embraced the hurling final."

More than 25 trains from all over the country were specially commissioned to the Kerry town ahead of the clash of arch rivals Tipperary and Kilkenny, and by the eve of the final, a tide of thousands had saturated Killarney's accommodation resources.

The crowd that enveloped Killarney's streets offered a sample of each of the country's accents, and as Saturday night gave way to the dawn of an All-Ireland Sunday, the people of Kerry joined the unprecedented and unrepeated celebration.

"Over 43,000 attended - a record for Fitzgerald Stadium that stood until the Kerry-Cork Munster football semi-final of 1998 - and it was far from just Kilkenny and Tipperary folk that crossed the county bounds. Back then, All-Irelands were All-Irelands in every sense of the term, and you had people from Derry, Belfast, Dublin, and goodness knows where else down to make a weekend of it.

"On Sunday morning, hundreds of cars and buses took to the town - an extraordinary sight for a time of little motor activity - and for the first time, Killarney saw fields used as car parks, with frustrated drivers abandoning their motors in exasperation at the lack of parking.

"The whole of Kerry embraced the day. One of the great quotes from the time claimed there were no men left on the Blaskets that Sunday; they all rowed to the mainland for the match. It was a wonderful occasion"

Before the game, Tipperary captain Jimmy Lannigan gave a cocksure interview worlds removed from the bloodless previews routinely spun by today's more reserved stars. Lannigan's team had toppled Mick Mackey's mighty Limerick in the Munster final of 1937, and that result offered reason enough to launch the Premier County to undisputed Championship favouritism.

Tipperary's opponent was a fading Kilkenny that had slinked its way to the final by way of uninspiring wins over Westmeath and Galway. Lannigan's confidence was thought to be well-placed - and so it proved.

"Whatever about the occasion, the match was a disaster," Dr McElligott laughs. "Once the Bishop of Ossory threw the ball in, everything gave way to the inevitable. Kilkenny threw the great Lory Meagher on with some 20 minutes gone, but that only proved one the game's few talking points. Tipp already had two goals on the board by then, and the game was as good as over. It ultimately finished 3-11 to 0-3, and it's still regarded today as one of the worst finals."

Altogether more interesting than the match itself are the discussions arising from examinations of its legacy. While the occasion proved Killarney could house big games, the town didn't host a Munster hurling final until 1950 as provincial council chose to ignore Kerry in favour of Limerick and Thurles. By the 1950s, Dr O'Sullivan lamented that the stadium had become something of a white elephant, caged and unable to reach its potential.

"Once Páirc Uí Chaoimh came on stream, Killarney fell further down the order. The stadium hasn't hosted any inter-county hurling game since the 2004 qualifier between Tipperary and Cork, and that famine is unlikely to end anytime soon," Dr McElligott adds.

"Regarding the sport itself, hurling people hoped the final would stimulate interest in the game in South Kerry but, as I'm sure you already know, this hope also faded to nothing.

"What can be said about the 1937 final is that it was a unique occasion. It was an honour to Dick Fitzgerald, a hat-tip to the phenomenal work of people like Dr Eamon O'Sullivan and, while it never took off as a hurling venue, the stadium has at least become a Cathedral of football.

"Today, it's my favourite place to watch football. There's nothing better than looking out towards MacGillicuddy's Reeks while you're beating Cork under the summer sunshine - and long may days like those continue!"

 

Factfile

This was the first All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final held outside of Dublin since 1909.

The final has only been brought outside Dublin once since 1937. That was for the "Centenary Final" in 1984, when Cork beat Offaly in Thurles.

The official attendance was 43,620. This was Tipperary's 12th All-Ireland Hurling title.

People travelled by rail from the following places: Belfast, 362; Cork, 2,218; Dublin, 2,123; Birr, 1,206; Kilkenny, 1,643; Carlow, 381; Valentia 354; Newcastlewest, 1,300; Tralee, 1,260; Clonmel, 786; Mallow, 1,004; Kilmeadon, 800; Waterford 950; Thurles, 1,921; Wexford, 375; Kenmare, 422; Ennis, 960; Grange, 766; Cloughjordan, 850.

Kerryman

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